Russian credential theft shows why the password is dead

It's way past time for companies to implement strong authentication measures

News that Russian hackers amassed login credentials belonging to more than 1.2 billion Internet users hammers home why companies that have not implemented strong authentication measures really need to get moving on it.

Passwords have been dead for years. Security experts have been advocating the need for companies to raise the bar on user authentication for a long time.

Bill Gates, in fact, famously predicted the death of the password 10 years ago during a speech at the RSA Security Conference, and organizations like the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council ( FFIEC) have required banks to implement strong authentication measures since at least 2005.

In recent years, many companies have implemented multifactor authentication measures, such as the use of a password and a unique code sent to a mobile phone, for securing access to critical accounts. Many companies, especially in the financial service industry, routinely support the use of tokens and other methods to generate and distribute random onetime passwords to be used in conjunction with static passwords.

Other companies have implemented less visible measures for verifying user identity during the log-in process and even while a transaction is being conducted. Major banks, e-commerce sites and even some social media sites routinely use device identification and location sensing tools for quickly spotting and challenging users attempting to log in from a new location or an unfamiliar device.

Yet a troubling large number of companies still rely on just a user name and a password for letting users into their accounts, said Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner. And it is for these companies, and their customers, that the Russian credential theft is especially troublesome.

"If you still only rely on a password, then good luck. Passwords were dead a few years ago. Now they are more than dead," Litan said. Passwords are so easily compromised that it is almost pointless for companies to rely on them as the sole method for authentication.

Numerous, relatively easy to implement tools are available for companies to strengthen their authentication process. Many of these tools work in the background in a non-intrusive manner so users don't even know of their presence, she said. These include device printing, gesture analytics, user profiling and anomaly detection.

"Consumers don't even know these technologies are in force, and analyzing their behavior unless they're a bad actor in which case their session will be interrupted and suspended," she said.

Smartphones and other mobile devices also offer a great opportunity for companies to strengthen user authentication methods, Litan said. Smartphones, for instance, make it relatively easy for companies to deliver one-time use passwords and even biometric identifiers such as voice or fingerprints to identify a user.

Many companies have been slow to implement multifactor authentication because of concerns of inconveniencing users. "Even financial companies have issues with this," said Luis Corrons, technical director of security vendor PandaLabs.

"Talking to their security teams, they usually have brilliant ideas to implement in order to reduce identity theft," Corrons said. However, concerns about annoying customers and fears about them going to a competitor often slow down such ideas, he said.

"Single factor authentication is something from the last century," Corrons said. By now most companies should have moved at least to two-factor authentication, especially considering the widespread use of mobile devices.

Even so, getting away from passwords entirely is not going to be easy, he said. "There is a lot of work we have to do first to educate users about the great security issue we have if we keep using single passwords to protect our data," he said. Companies also have to figure out new multi-factor authentication systems that both improve security and don't harm the usability.

"User ID and password are like a lock and key -- they keep the honest and casual bad guy out," said Ron Gula, CEO at Tenable.

While they can be effective, a lot depends on the strength of the password, Gula said. "Every year we see 'Password,' 'Password1' and '12345' in the top of the weak password study lists," Gula noted. "We can design a lot of technological controls, but the weak link is still the user. If they choose poor passwords, and poor online hygiene, like using the same password on multiple sites, then the network protection is only as strong as its weakest password."

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